Have you been in search of the best clawhammer banjo? If so, you’re in the right place! Banjos suited for clawhammer playing differ slightly from those used for Bluegrass, Jazz, or certain Alternative style songs.They’re perfect for Old-Time or Folk music! In our guide, we will cover everything you need to know to select the absolute best banjo for clawhammer style playing.
Clawhammer Banjo Buyer’s Guide at a Glance
Here, we’ll cover…
• About Clawhammer Style Playing
• Where Does the Clawhammer Playing Style Come From?
• How to Play the Banjo Clawhammer Style
• What Makes a Banjo for Clawhammer Playing Ideal?
• Who Makes the Best Clawhammer Banjo?
• The 5 Overall Best Clawhammer Banjos to Buy
• Buying Guide: FAQ Section
First off, we’ll take a look at the clawhammer playing style in-depth. That way, you can better understand where the style comes from and why it’s a fantastic option for musicians to implement. Then, we will discuss the clawhammer banjo itself.
So, you’ll have a better idea of what to look for in an instrument. After that, we are going to walk you through the top five absolute best clawhammer style banjos.
Finally, we’ve also included a clawhammer banjo FAQ section to clear up some of the most frequently asked questions about these instruments. Let’s dive in!
About Clawhammer Style Playing
The clawhammer playing style is like nothing else you’ve ever heard! When many people think of the iconic banjo sound, they’re reminded of Earl Scruggs or the signature three-finger picking Bluegrass banjo sound.
This is one of the most dominant playing styles in mainstream culture and has reigned supreme since the 1940s. While this three-finger picking method is very popular, there’s also an older way to play.
The slightly lesser-known clawhammer playing style is melodic, slightly gentler than three-finger picking, and offers you lovely rhythmic tones.
Here is a video going through the standard claw-hammer and drop-thumb style:
An Undeniable Rhythm
To put it simply, the clawhammer playing style describes a method of playing in which the strings of a banjo are struck using the back of your middle or index fingernail. Then, the strings are alternatively plucked with your thumb.
This is in contrast to the three-finger picking style, wherein the strings are all plucked individually using the thumb, middle, and index fingers. The term clawhammer references both the shape of your hand as you play and the way you hit the strings.
Your hand is in a sort of claw shape and the way you strike the strings is in a hammering motion.
Mellow Folkey Tones
Clawhammer style playing is closely associated with Old-Timey, Traditional, Folk, and Americana style music. However, the style can also be applied easily in many contemporary styles of music. Typically, clawhammer style songs are played on open-back banjos.
This is because an open-back banjo will better showcase the style’s mellow tones and rhythm. Furthermore, original clawhammer songs were often played on this style of instrument.
Where Does the Clawhammer Playing Style Come From?
So who invented clawhammer style playing? Where did it come from? Well, to find the answers to these questions, you’ll have to travel back in time to a much earlier period in American history. Specifically, you’ll want to look toward the American south in the 1800s.
The clawhammer style is likely the original playing method used by the earliest banjo players. Some reports suggest that in as early as 1620, instruments that resembled banjos were being played in West Africa. These instruments had drums fashioned of animal skin and hard shells made of gourds. Then, a nack was created using a wooden stick with strings looped over the head to produce tuning.
Later during the 1700s, the instrument traveled with Africans who were transported west. First, the banjo can be seen in the Caribbean and in what was then the Louisiana territory.
As the American south became more densely populated, the instrument grew in popularity throughout the Antebellum South. At this time, all playing was likely in the clawhammer style. Although, it was referred to as a stroke, frailing, or framming style.
By the 1800s, banjos had reached their familiar 5-string format. These instruments were now complete with tuning pegs but without frets. Clawhammer playing was used as a rhythmic accompaniment to a melodic fiddle. This produced some irresistible catchy dance tunes known as Old-Timey music.
Performers like Daniel D. Emmet and Joel Walker Sweeny played in the clawhammer style and wrote some of the best clawhammer banjo songs of the day. As popularity spread, musicians all across America picked up on this style, and as they say, the rest is history.
How to Play the Banjo Clawhammer Style
Clawhammer banjo playing is based on a very simple pattern called the “bum-ditty” rhythm. It’s called this because it correlates in syllables with three movements you will need to make as you play.
Bum – Using the nail of your middle or index finger, you’ll need to strike any of the first four banjo strings. Then, you let the note ring for one count.
Di – Next, you’ll brush across the strings with the nails of your middle, index, or ring fingers. As you’re completing this motion, let your thumb rest on the fifth string at the very top.
Tty – Pull outward on the top (fifth) string with your thumb. Your finger will be in the position needed to hammer the next string and repeat the entire pattern.
In musical terminology, the bum ditty pattern consists of one whole note, bum, and two half notes, ditty. This can be built on with another clawhammer technique known as double-thumbing. With this technique, you’ll pluck the second string twice creating two half notes with the “bum”. This then creates a four-note “bum-a-ditty” pattern.
These notes weren’t picked arbitrarily either. Players made the bum ditty pattern up because they created a practical rhythmic pattern. Each motion sets up the playing hand for the next note easily. This helps to create speed and accuracy while maintaining rhythm.
Other advanced techniques include a dropped thumb, up-strumming, and syncopated skips. With that in mind, at the core of the clawhammer sound is the classic bum ditty pattern.
What Makes a Banjo for Clawhammer Playing Ideal?
Ideally, the best banjo for clawhammer playing will have an open-back design, frets, tuners, and of course, a top 5th string. So, the best clawhammer banjo will be an open-back five-string banjo. Four-string banjos do not have the signature top fifth-string, and resonator (close-back) banjos aren’t ideal for the soft and quick melodic tones that come from clawhammer style playing.
Factors to Consider a You Shop for Clawhammer Banjos
The best banjo for clawhammer playing will be an open-back five-string banjo with a good design. The best open-back banjos are usually durable, lightweight, expertly crafted, and made by a trusted professional banjo manufacturer.
Best Clawhammer Banjo Features to Look For
- Open-Back Design
- Five-String Setup
- High-Quality Lightweight Materials
- Trusted Brand
- Good Bridge and Strings
- Sound and Sturdy Rim
- Geared Tuning Pegs
- Open-Back Design
For a good mellow melody, an open back design is essential. The best banjo for clawhammer style playing is almost always going to have an open-back. This helps to prevent those speedy clawhammer notes from overlapping in the resonation chamber and muddling up the sounds you’re making.
Also, you’ll absolutely have to have a five-string banjo. Without the signature top string, you won’t be able to create those rhythm notes. Therefore, the best clawhammer banjos are always five-string banjos.
Who Makes the Best Clawhammer Banjo?
Now that you know what clawhammer playing is and which banjo styles are ideal, let’s talk brands and makers.
Deering Banjo Company
Undoubtedly, the Deering Banjo Company makes some of the best clawhammer banjos around. Deering has been around since the 1970s, is based in California, and makes banjos in a few different brands. The Deering Goodtime Banjo brand offers a range of great open-back clawhammer variants.
Deering also crafts Vega and Tenbrooks banjos as well as a few Deering specialty lines. Deering banjos are known for their signature designs, masterful craftsmanship, and long-term durability.
Washburn banjos are another great option to look into. Washburn has been crafting stunning banjos since the late 1800S. They offer a range of open-back banjos in their Americana banjo series lineup. Washburn banjos are of good quality, design, and material construction.
They’re also fun to play and reasonably affordable.
The 5 Overall Best Clawhammer Banjos to Buy
Since you’re pretty much an expert on the history of clawhammer playing, let’s look into what you’re really here to discover: the best clawhammer banjos around. Below, are the top five absolute best clawhammer banjos available for sale today.
1.) Deering Goodtime 5-String Banjo
A Quality Top-Rated Open-Back Banjo
The American-made Deering Goodtime banjo has a gorgeous and slender rock maple neck, 3-ply maple rim, adjustable tailpiece, and geared tuners. It balances premium quality, design, and sound, all for an amazing price. Its geared tuners are precise and it’s also fun to play!
2.) Washburn Americana Series B7-A 5-string Open Back Banjo
The Best Americana Clawhammer Banjo
Perfect for fans of Folk music, Old-Timey music, and clawhammer style players, this B7 banjo showcases mahogany wood and an open back 5-string design. It also features a Remo head for achieving the best tone, a quality maple bridge with an ebony tip, and chrome die-cast tuners for smoother tuning. Plus, it comes with D’Addario strings.
3.) Mulucky B1101 5 String Banjo Beginner Kit
The Best Beginner Clawhammer Banjo
This is a great beginner clawhammer banjo. It showcases a lovely open-back design, has all five of the strings you need, and comes as part of a premium kit. You’ll get a strap, gig bag, tuner, and more. All of this, for a great price.
4.) Gold Tone CC-Mini Cripple Creek Banjo
The Best Lightweight Clawhammer Banjo
This stylish and lightweight open-back banjo comes at a fair price and has a stunning design. This banjo is easy to play with its wide neck, large frets, and high-grade tuner pegs. This banjo also has a two-way adjustable truss rod, geared 5th string tuner, and a Vega-style armrest for comfort.
5.) Recording King RK-OT25-BR Madison Open Back Banjo
The Best Scooped Clawhammer Banjo
This premium RK-0T25 banjo is ideal for picking out Old-Timey or Folk tunes. It has a bent maple rim, 24-bracket tension hoop, and vintage styled design. The scooped rosewood fretboard makes it a wonderful choice for clawhammer style playing as well.
No matter if you are a beginner or experience banjo musician any of our top 5 picks above will be a great choice for your next clawhammer banjo purchase. Just remember that ideally you have to choose an open back banjo!
Buyer’s Guide: FAQ Section
Here, we will answer some of your most frequently asked questions about clawhammer banjos!
What is the best clawhammer banjo instructional video?
The best video on clawhammer playing is possibly this useful video from banjo expert Tom Collins. For some great clawhammer banjo songs, this video is a pretty great starting place as well. Simply click the links to watch them!
What is the best banjo for clawhammer playing?
Any of the open-back banjos from the Deering Goodtime series or the Washburn Americana series would be a great choice.
What are the best banjo strings for clawhammer banjos?
The best banjo strings for clawhammer banjos will come in a set specifically optimized for a five-string banjo. So, you’ll get five strings in one pack. Some of the best banjo strings for clawhammer style players are from Elixir.
Elixir strings are of impressive quality and work easily for a range of playing styles. Martin banjo strings are pretty great as well. These Martin Banjo Strings are well worth looking into!
What are the best gauge banjo strings for clawhammer banjos?
Since clawhammer style players use their wrist and arm to play medium gauges are ideal. Medium gauge strings tend to enhance the mid-range sound preferred by Old-Time players. So, the best banjo strings for clawhammer style playing will be well-made and of a medium gauge.
Who are the best clawhammer banjo players?
Some of the all-time best players of the clawhammer style include:
Uncle Earl who Famously Played: The Last Goodbye
Adam Hurt who Famously Played: John Riley the Shepherd
Giri & Uma Peters who Famously Played: The Cuckoo
Rhiannon Giddens who Famously Played: Following the North Star
Bruce Molsky who Famously Played: Cumberland Gap
Allison de Groot with Jack Devereux and Nic Gareiss who Famously Played: Black-Eyed Suzie
Which is the best banjo bridge for clawhammer instruments?
A maple bridge is always good to consider. Dark Star and Archie bridges are also a great option. For clawhammer playing, find a light and durable bridge that measures at least 5/8-inches.
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